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Computers read so you don’t have to

By Dennis Baron

Machines can grade essays just as well as human readers. According to the New York Times, a competition sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation produced software able to match human essay readers grade for grade, and a study of commercially-available automatic grading programs showed that computers assessed essays as accurately as human readers, but a whole lot faster, and cheaper, to boot. But that’s just the start: computers could lead to a reading-free future.

Not only are they cheap and efficient, computers grading essays do something human teachers can’t: they grade consistently. Because human readers disagree, the essay you grade B+ I might flunk, and someone else would give it a C-. Plus computers aren’t unionized, at least, not yet.

I have long been skeptical of machines grading essays. But now, in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence, I think it’s time to welcome these newly-literate machines and find even more for them to do. After all, reading is a chore, which is why literacy scores on standardized tests are down (those tests are graded by machines, so we know they’re accurate).

The fact is that nobody reads books any more. Can you even find a bookstore on the rare occasion that you want one? So if machines can do our reading for us, like they do the laundry or the dishes, then we should celebrate this progress. We’re already using computers to check our spelling; some writers use them to check grammar as well. But give a computer a red pencil, and there may be no limit to what it can do.

Teachers can use computers not just to read student writing, but also to autorespond to student email: no, you can’t have an extension; yes, it’s on the final; I’m sorry about your goldfish. And not just student email. Let your computer tell the dean you’re not available at 10 on Thursday. Let it read the committee report for you and file it away. Let it read that book you agreed to review but could never find the time to read. It can do your professional reading. It can do your beach reading. So far as I know, computers are already generating book reviews on Amazon, the New York Times Book Review and TLS.

In fact, if the Hewlett data is correct, computers will soon replace human readers for just about all academic chores. A computer will read your dissertation and pass it, or suggest revisions. It will read your grant application and fund it, or suggest revisions. It will reject your manuscript. It will deny you tenure.

But computer readers are not just for academics. A well-programmed computer can take the drudgery out of all our daily reading tasks:

  • It can read your junk mail.
  • It can read your important mail.
  • When you’re at the movies it can read the subtitles and credits, get you the IMDb plot summary and list of continuity gaffes, and tell you whether you’ll miss something important if you go refill your popcorn.
  • It can read menus at restaurants and order for you based on your personal preferences or on Yelp reviews.
  • It can read signs, product labels, and assembly instructions both in English and Spanish, and tell you which parts should not be left over when you’re done (but it can’t read instructions that are all pictures and no words).
  • The literate computer can even read its own multi-screen terms of service, digital rights management, and end-user license agreements and click “Accept” for you so you can start using its reading services right away.

Plus a computer-reader can friend you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter, retweeting your posts or favoriting them. And since literate computers have a strong and consistent sense of what’s important in writing, they can also unfollow you, block you, or report you as spam. Computers, if they’re lazy, can even rely on other computers’ assessments: Deep Blue rates this essay 4.5 out of 5, so your computer will definitely want to read it.

Apparently, computer editors are replacing human editors in publishing as well. Given the annoying typos and spurious hyphens endemic to ebooks, I could save myself a lot of trouble by having my iPad read my iBook to itself. Then I can just go do something else while I wait for the movie version to appear in my Netflix queue.

But back to education. Writing teachers tell students, “Write for your audience.” But what if your audience is a machine? According to the latest scientific findings, that’s not a problem: computers and human readers agree with a statistical likelihood of P < 0.05. Fourteen years ago, at the dawn of the digital age, I saw the possibilities for computers replacing not just readers but writers as well:

Web sites now offer students the ability to download term papers free. If we’re going to eliminate the human reader, why not eliminate the writer too, and let the computer grading program interface directly with the computer-generated essay? In a way, they deserve each other. Besides, eliminating the drudgery of writing would allow students more free time that they could then spend with their newly-leisured instructors.

Now that I’m convinced about the value of computers reading writing, I’ve even developed a slogan for the computer reading machines to use: “We read, so you don’t have to.” Naturally, it will be up to a computer to decide whether that slogan is effective, though my roommate thinks it’s worth an A.

Computers: We read, so you don’t have to. The computer’s assessment? Nice work, Denny. Your essay shows mastery of 3 out of 5 skills. C+. But my roommate thought it was worth an A.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.

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Recent Comments

  1. Just Confused

    Oh, because `that`’s why we read!

Comments are closed.